Here are some things parents say to me about their discipline frustrations:
--I don’t feel like I have an overall theory of discipline. It’s more that I just do whatever comes out at the time. Sometimes my reaction or instinct is really good, and other times I’m being just as immature or reactive as my toddler. I just feel like I need to give more thought to it and have a plan.
--I feel disempowered. I think I’ve been told a list of things that I should NOT do –spank, yell, etc. – but I don’t know what I CAN do, other than just take a toy away. So I find myself making empty or meaningless threats ("Do that again and you’re going to be in BIG trouble!") and then I’m just so frustrated. I don’t know what to do in the moment.
Do these parents’ comments resonate with you? I can certainly identify. I remember how clueless I felt as a new parent, and even though the stories often end up being funny in retrospect, I’m embarrassed at how I responded at times when my kids acted out.
The Parenting Expert Gets Taken Down by Her Own Reactive Brain
One day my three-year-old got mad and hit me. I guided him to his time-out spot at the bottom of our stairway, sat next to him, and smiled. I lovingly (and naively) said, “Hands are for helping and loving, not for hurting.”
While I was uttering this truism, he hit me again.
So I tried the empathy approach: “Ouch! That hurts mommy. You don’t want to hurt me, do you?”
At which point he hit me again.
I then tried the firm approach: “Hitting is not OK. Don’t hit any more. If you’re mad you need to use your words.”
Yup, you guessed it. He hit me again.
I was lost. I felt I needed to up the ante. In my most powerful voice I said, “Now you’re in time out at the top of the stairs.”
I marched him up to the top of our stairs. He was probably thinking, “Cool! We’ve never done this before. . . I wonder what will happen next if I keep hitting her?”
At the top of the stairs, I bent over at the waist, my pointer finger wagging, and said, “NO MORE HITTING!”
He didn’t hit me again.
He kicked me in the shin.
(As he points out these days when we re-tell the story, he was technically obeying my no-hitting instructions.)
At this moment virtually all of my self-control was gone. I grabbed his arm and pulled him into my room at the top of the stairs, yelling, “Now you’re in time out in Mommy and Daddy’s room!”
Again, I had no strategy, no plan or approach. And as a result, my young son was simply enjoying wielding his power as his increasingly red-faced mother yanked him from location to location in the house.
By this point I was alternately cajoling and scolding and commanding and reasoning (waaaay too much talking): “You may not hurt mommy. Hitting and kicking is not how we do things in our family. . . Blah blah blah. . . .”
And that’s when he made his big mistake. He stuck out his tongue at me.
In response, the rational, empathetic, responsible, problem-solving part of my brain was hijacked by my primitive, reactive brain, and I yelled, “IF YOU STICK THAT TONGUE OUT ONE MORE TIME, I’M GOING TO RIP IT OUT OF YOUR MOUTH!”
In case you're wondering, I don’t recommend in any circumstance threatening to remove any of your child’s body parts. This was not good parenting.
And it wasn’t effective discipline, either. My son dropped to the ground, crying. I’d scared him, and he kept saying, “You’re a mean mommy!” He wasn’t thinking about his own behavior at all—he was solely focused on my misbehavior.
What I did next was probably the only thing I did right in the whole interaction, and it’s essential each time we have these types of ruptures in our relationship with our children: I repaired with him. I immediately realized how awful I’d been in that reactive, angry moment. If anyone else had treated my child as I just had, I would’ve come unglued. I held my young son close and told him how sorry I was and allowed him to talk about how much he didn’t like what had just happened. We retold the story to make sense of it for him and I comforted him.
How Would I Handle This Situation Now?
I usually get big laughs when I tell this story because parents so identify with this type of a moment, and I think they enjoy hearing that a parenting expert has these moments, too. Virtually every time I tell the story, someone raises a hand and asks, “What would you do now? How would you handle this situation differently?”
For several reasons, I’m not a fan of time-outs anymore, especially for a child this young. Instead, once my son had hit me the first time, I would have used a simple, four-step approach.
- Address the feelings behind the behavior: “Wow, I can see that you’re feeling really frustrated. Do you feel mad?”
- Address the behavior: “Hitting hurts. No hitting.”
- Give him alternatives. Tell him what he can do instead: “Be gentle with mommy’s body. It’s OK to be mad, but when you are, you can tell me about it, or even hit the pillow, like this.”
- Move on: “Hey! Let’s go outside and see if there are any worms on the sidewalk.”
Some people may wonder about consequences for my son’s actions. For an older child, you might choose to make consequences a part of the discipline process. But as I always say, the purpose of discipline is to teach, not to give consequences. If consequences help teach, then it might be appropriate to use them. But I believe that for a child this age, the most effective approach is to address his feelings and the behavior, tell him about a more appropriate response, then move on to other things.
I’m guessing you’d agree that this four-step approach might be even more effective and loving than threatening to remove a body part.